Happy-Go-Lucky Jingle-Jangle Music With a Carefree Lead Singer. Woot!

Oct 19, 2010 (Updated Dec 23, 2010)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:These songs are a lot of fun to hear, especially in the first half.

Cons:The second half starts to get bland and samey.

The Bottom Line: This is a hell of an upbeat album! (The lyrics, however, are surprisingly dark!) Nonetheless, this music is great to take with you on a springtime walk.

(Disclaimer: Those looking for a brief description of the album will find what they're looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review might not be written in the point of view of a 10,000 Maniacs fan.)

Overall Score: 11/15
Best song: “Hey Jack Kerouac”
Worst song: “Verdi Cries”

Review Body:

10,000 Maniacs' second album for a major label was the one that put them on the map—this is where they polished their sound and started writing songs that a lot of people seem to love. And it's not much of a stretch of the imagination to see why people love this; these are some of the most happy-go-lucky songs that I've ever listened to! Of course, Natalie Merchant's singing is one of the primary appeals; her velvety chops have a bit of a melancholic twinge to them, which helps keep these songs from sounding too much like they were overdosing on anti-depressants. There are a lot of nice songs on this album, but there's only one that makes a huge impression on me.

That is “Hey Jack Kerouac,” which has a fantastic melody. Did that happen on purpose, or was it by accident? I can't be too sure with these guys, since so many of their melodies sound like they were made up on the spot. Merchant, as always, is the star of the show, and sings this loveable melody with an unstoppably carefree vibe. I also love listening to the way they cleaned up their production values for this disc—their watery, jangly guitars come through my speakers so cleanly that they're the musical equivalent of looking through a cool mountain spring. As always, most 10,000 Maniacs songs are groove-based, and this is one that I happen to bob my head with most agreeably to. ...If you only listen to one of their songs, make it that one. I don't think they ever topped it.

Nothing is better than “Hey Jack Kerouac,” but “What's the Matter Here?” does make for a lovely album opener. It's perfect music to listen to when you're going for a walk in the springtime. (Why don't more people go for walks in the springtime? It beats the hell out of going to the gym and having to deal with all those sweaty people in spandex. ...In my humble-ish opinion.) “Don't Talk” could be the darkest song of the album since portions of the rhythm section come off as pounding and doom-ridden, and there's a bit of rough-ish guitar providing background texture. But of course, Merchant's lead vocals come in to remind us that everything is OK. Particularly as she carries us into the more upbeat chorus. The melody is lovely, too!

Despite my constant descriptions of these songs as being “upbeat” and “happy,” I get a much different impression of them when I read the lyrics. Many of them sound rather upset or cold. For example, in “Like the Weather,” Merchant sings ”The color of the sky is grey as I can see through the blinds / Lift my head from the pillow and then fall again / Shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather / A quiver in my voice as if I might cry.” Other than that, it sounds like the freaking happiest song I've ever heard. ...The disconnection between the lyrics and the music perplexes me. ...Perhaps I shouldn't think about it anymore.

The crystal clear production values are excellent throughout this album, but that quality can backfire when the songwriting isn't quite up to snuff and it starts to sound sterile. That becomes a problem mostly in the last half of the album. “Gun Shy” is a mid-tempo song with a forgettable melody and ho-hum instrumentation. (I mean, the instrumentation consists of jangle guitars and drums... Like pretty much every other song here.) “My Sister Rose” has a vaguely tropical vibe, and its production is so squeaky clean that it seems rather cheesy to me.

The final two songs are probably my least favorite, although it doesn't seem like they should be. “City of Angels” is a soaring ballad where Merchant is singing like a larger-than-life diva. Unfortunately, the melody is very forgettable, and thus I get a bit bored sitting through it. Even worse is “Verdi Cries,” which is the album's only piano ballad. The instrumentation is quite beautiful, in particular the string quartet that plays warmly in the background. However, a minute into it, my attention wanders off something fierce. Zzzzzz...

This score was very close to a 12. Compare that to the score of The Wishing Chair, which was a weakish-11. What kept me from upping the rating is the album's lack of diversity and the weak second half. But seriously, these ratings only matter in my numbers-obsessed brain. If you have a penchant for happy-go-lucky, jingle-jangle music, then In My Tribe could be more effective for you than Prozac. Check it out! (...That is, unless you actually have a chemical imbalance... I'm not suggesting you go off your meds, or anything... Remember folks, Tom Cruise is full of crap.)

Track Reviews:

What's the Matter Here? A
Well hello there, jangles! This song is produced so crystal clearly that it glistens, and Merchant's happy/velvety lead singing makes it even more happy go lucky. I used to think this song was pretty bland and boring, but it's grown on me somehow. Maybe I thought the production was too stale? ...Er, I guess it is if you want to compare it to the Rolling Stones or something, but there's nothing terribly wrong with a rock band that takes a shower in the morning. (Have you seen the sort of clothes Merchant used to wear singing in concerts? It was like she was dressing up for Sunday school or something.) Merchant manages to run across a few interesting hooks even though I still think it sounds like she's making up the melody as she goes along. Anyway, nice song! It's happy and fun.

Hey Jack Kerouac A+
This is probably my favorite 10,000 Maniacs song, so I'll give it an A+. I think it's also probably a good indicator of whether or not you're really cut-out for 10,000 Maniacs fandom. (If you're repulsed by it on first listen, then off with thee and flee over the hills...) As far as the melody goes, this is by far their most memorable. I've been getting this song stuck in my head off and on for a few months. I remember even thinking about it as I was off to see her concert last August. For once, I get the impression that Merchant isn't just making it up on the spot! The production sounds exactly the same as “What's the Matter Here?” Very crystal clear, very jangly. It wore deodorant... unlike the real Jack Kerouac, probably.

Like the Weather A-
After “Hey Jack Kerouac” goes away, is there much point in continuing? ...Er, I guess so. This is a good song, too! A great song? I don't think so. It's characterized by a crystal clear and somewhat complicated drum rhythm while an acoustic guitar strums along, and I can barely hear an electric organ in the background. It's not quite as jangly as the other songs, though. I guess “some songs are more jangly than others” is about as diverse as this album gets! Merchant sings another likable melody in her likable singing voice. No changes there.

Cherry Tree A-
Some songs are more jangly than others? This song is more jangly than others! Listen to those jangly guitars!! They're just jangling all over the place!!! How many guitars is that? Must be three of them, not including the bass. (That poor bassist must be bored just playing those boring-as-hell bass lines...) But anyway, this song is nothing if it isn't likable. If you like jangly music, then this is likable. The melody is well delivered, but the hooks aren't solid. In other words, this is a typical sort of 10,000 Maniacs song.

The Painted Desert B+
Also extremely jangly! But the pace is mid-tempo. That gives us another facet to this album's diversity: some songs are less mid-tempo than others. I don't seem to like this song so terribly much, and that's probably because their lack of melodic prowess becomes more apparent when they're not giving us a happy-go-lucky beat we can dance to. Albeit one of the bridges is interesting, and I start to think it's about to lead to a great and soaring chorus. Don't you think it would be great to hear Merchant sing a soaring chorus? I do!!

Don't Talk A
Ha hah! I'm not talking! I'm typing! Nice try, guys!! ...Actually, this is one of the more memorable tunes on here. The atmosphere starting out is rather thick and dark, which is a bit of a change of pace. But of course, Natalie Merchant's bright-and-glistening, caramel voice comes in and lets us know that everything is alright. The pace is just right this time—toe tapping. You probably can't dance to it, unless you were going to do some sort of artful interpretation. ...I'd probably rather not watch... But anyway, it's a good, whistlable tune, and I especially like that dark and watery guitar they use in the background.

Gun Shy B
According to Wikipedia, the world's vegetable garden of useful information, Track #7 of this album used to be a Cat Stevens cover. However, they had it removed after Cat Stevens said Salman Rushdie should be put to death. (But can you really blame him? I never met a member of the feline species that wasn't interested in putting Salman to death.) ((Your reaction to my hilarious joke: Booooo!)) ...Before I rudely interrupted myself... This is a nice song. But all songs on this album are nice. It's upbeat, jangly, and Merchant sounds just as carefree as people look on herpes medication commercials. (Is it just me, or do those commercials make it look like herpes are a good thing? ...It's all to do with the herpes propaganda mill, no doubt. Probably the disease itself making those commercials, clever little buggers.) The melody is OK, but not memorable. The instrumentation is standard. ...I've run out of off-topic things to talk about, so I'll just move onto the next song.

My Sister Rose B
There's a smattering of a tropical vibe to this one although not quite as face-deep into it that they've gotten in earlier albums. It's very cutesy and sort of fun. Very polished, and the instrumentation sounds a little bit like a keyboard demo. If I was at an upper-class beach party drinking margaritas and wearing white pants, I think I might be dancing to this. ...But unfortunately, I'm sitting in my PJs in my apartment somewhere in the Inland Empire, typing on this computer, and freezing my buns off. (Should I turn on the heat? ...I guess I just like to suffer.)

A Campfire Song B+
It's not “Kumbaya,” thank goodness. …As a matter of fact, this just sounds like the stereotypical 10,000 Maniacs song. Upbeat drums, jangle guitars, happy-go-lucky lead singing... She duets a bit with a guy in the middle, but that's the extent of this song's change-of-pace. Whenever I used to sing songs by the campfire, there was never someone nearby with a jangle guitar. And if someone tried to duet with me like that, he'd get punched in the face.

City of Angels B
That was pretty much the worst movie ever made. (Except for Boondock Saints.) It's also apparently a nickname for Los Angeles, which is pretty much the worst city ever made. (Except for St. Louis.) ...But this song is alright. It's a little bit boring, though. The pace is mid-tempo, and Merchant is singing in a more soaring, diva-esque way. I can picture this song playing with fireworks. The only problem I have is just that the melody doesn't interest me at all. Nothing about it ever really hooks me.

Verdi Cries B-
And I cry, too, for this is a verrrrrrry boring piano ballad. Given that I'm one who usually likes sensitive piano ballads (as opposed to cheese-metal power ballads), this B- is pretty much a smack in the face. ...What is it about 10,000 Maniacs that they're so inconsistent at writing melodies that knock me off my feet? (I guess that goes to show why I sort of consider the catchy melody of “Hey Jack Kerouac” to be mostly accidental.) Nonetheless, it's a pretty song, and I don't remember ever hearing Merchant sound so pretty singing. The string quartet playing along with the piano is pretty, too. Bring this with you next time you go to a flower show with your mom (as long as she doesn't care that you prefer putting on headphones instead of talking to her).

Concluding Remarks:

A very strong beginning gives way to a less eventful second half. Nonetheless, the first half is very addictive! Get it if you like happy music! (With confusingly colder lyrics.)

Read more 10,000 Maniacs reviews by Starcollector!

Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983 (1990) | The Wishing Chair (1985) | In My Tribe (1987) | Blind Man's Zoo (1989) | Our Time in Eden (1992)

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